Impressions on Spec Ops: The Line

For the third-person shooter fans out there, your thirst for more over-the-shoulder violence can be quenched, as the demo for Spec Ops: The Line is now available for download on your consoles. Grab your M4A1 and fall into formation behind me, as I take point to give you a quick look at this upcoming title. As per usual, spoilers may be present; so if you wish to drive in first unspoiled, now is the time!

Our taste-test of Spec Ops: The Line starts at the main menu, with a wide view of a ruined city, complete with an American flag flying upside down for some (as yet) unknown reason. Upon starting the demo, this view transitions seamlessly into the opening cutscene as two helicopters fly overhead. You, the player, are the gunner of the lead aircraft being chased under gunfire. A quick tactical maneuver, and your character blasts the other chopper into oblivion.

There are more on the way however, and this is where the gamer takes over control of a large mini-gun. It’s a scene we’ve seen before: players fire away at pursuing enemy vehicles in an attempt to survive a long trip, but there are some interesting moments. Certain enemies trigger a cinematic death if killed at the right time, such as crashing into a construction crane, which then swings down to crash into a building. While it’s a fun little ride, a lot of questions are in the air. Who are we? Why are we here? What city is this, and why is it a sand-covered ruin? Who are these people that are shooting at me? Our first answer is given near the end of the fast-paced chase, when our protagonists fly into a violent sandstorm to escape the pursuers, only to crash themselves. The screen goes black, with the exception of a single word: Earlier.

Flashback via cutscene to some time “earlier” and we learn that the city was Dubai, and that it has been racked with sudden and violent sandstorms. Players take control of one Captain Martin Walker, who players will quickly realize is voiced by Nolan North (Nathan Drake – Uncharted series, Romeo – Halo 3: ODST). You’ve been tasked with leading a small squad to investigate a transmission from Colonel John Konrad who, six months ago, disobeyed orders to leave the city. Instead, he and his 33rd battalion stayed behind to help evacuate civilians. Only now has he been heard from in the form of a static-filled transmission, citing that he has failed.

Gameplay opens back up on the outskirts of the ruined Dubai, with our trio heading towards the city via an over-packed highway. On this approach, players are taught the basics of the cover system, which is very reminiscent of Gears of War. Sprint into cover, switch between set pieces, vault them or sprint out of cover – any gamer who’s played Gears (or any other cover-based shooter for that matter) will instantly be familiar with this, and may even feel bored while they’re being taught.

After navigating the wreckage, players will find the source of the transmission, along with some dead soldiers from the 33rd. However, some survivors from the city also happen to find you, and are quick to point their guns your way. Some quick thinking and a well-placed bullet into a bus full of sand buries the rifle-toting refugees, but also starts a massive firefight between you and the rag-tag forces.

During this push through the enemy, you learn a bit about commanding your team. A single button is used to direct your buddies: tap it to have them use a tactical or frag grenade, or hold it to paint a single target for them to open up on. The latter will highlight an enemy bright red when your crosshairs fall over them, and can even be done to a foe behind cover. While still nothing groundbreaking, the teamwork feature helps vary up gameplay a little bit and distract from how typical the cover system is.

After a few quick shootouts (and a somewhat silly sniper shot), you’ll come across a short-range distress call: Alpha Patrol is requesting assistance from 33rd dispatch. Being only a short distance away, you and your men decide to head their way to give them a hand. Eventually, you come to a downed aircraft with Alpha holding out in the fuselage. Having arrived silently, one of your squadmates suggests equipping silencers and going in quiet. From this part of the demo on, you’re able to do this with select firearms, which gives gameplay a nice degree of choice for players (like myself) who may swing towards a quiet strike.

Regardless of how fast you move, you’ll arrive too late to save anyone. However, the dying breath of one member of Alpha will state that they took an important member of the 33rd to a place called “The Nest.” With no better options, your squad heads north, following a set of tracks in hopes of figuring out just what’s going on…

Which they most certainly do. Here, players jump into mission five, and are filled in on what’s happened in a brief summary. In their search for Konrad, they came across a violent civil war for control of Dubai, fought between the 33rd battalion and the Exiles (the city’s refugees, led by an American CIA agent). Our protagonists are caught in-between the two sides, who both wish them dead. After this insightful cutscene, players regain control and start the chapter… which I won’t ruin for you. If you’re curious, simply download the demo and play it out.

Speaking entirely in terms of gameplay and controls, there’s really nothing special here. You’ll find that the title feels like any other TPS you’ve ever played. However, the setting and themes present are a reason to look past this. There is a great sense of mystery, not only around the plot but also around the reasons for Dubai’s natural disaster, which in turn provides an interesting post-apocalyptic styled environment to navigate during in a modern combat scenario. These elements, when brought together, create a unique world that sets The Line apart from other titles.

The questions players will be asking throughout play also help to recover from the dated combat system. Who is this CIA agent? Why is he fighting an American battalion? What was the cause of this civil war? Where is John Konrad? How will our team survive? These will all have to be answered at launch, but many gamers will surely be intrigued by them.

Graphically, there is a bit more cause for concern. Remember my mention of a “somewhat silly sniper shot” earlier? A single shot from a standard bolt-action was apparently enough to shred a billboard into pieces when fired, which comes across as wacky in an otherwise seriously-themed game. Some movement of characters appears blocky or over-simplified as well, like they were programmed using as little animation as possible. Players will also note a rappel-line moving more like a bendable pole than a rope, with the item swinging wildly through their character’s feet. Making matters even worse is that some textures appear very grainy when camera angles get close to them. Fingers crossed that the demo is older code, because these instances could take down the experience a fair deal.

On the whole, Spec Ops: The Line is a decent third person shooter for genre-lovers to sink their teeth into. While it may feel dated or cliché in terms of gameplay and graphics, it’s still quite fun and the setting/story give it a fair chunk of life. If you’ve yet to download this demo, slap it into your queue and give it a shot. Just keep your head low, your eyes sharp, and a fresh mag in your rifle!

Spec Ops: The Line launches on June 26.

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May 18, 2012 - 8:00 am